Mapping civic art assets in Los Angeles County

Yvonne Lee, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, USA, Clare Haggarty, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, USA


The Los Angeles County Arts Commission has embarked on its first comprehensive baseline inventory project to survey for civic artworks. This demonstration covers strategy, tools, workflow, and data management practices with an emphasis on methodology and better practices.

Keywords: civic art, public art, asset mapping

1. Introduction

How does a government arts and culture agency go about inventorying its assets when it is the most populous county in the United States, with over ten million constituents stretched out over 4,083 square miles? Does the strategy change when the quantity of those assets is unknown and covers a time period since the establishment of the county 150 years ago? These were some of the challenges addressed by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission in the design and implementation of the civic art baseline inventory. Currently in its first year of surveying County-owned and leased properties of thirty-six departments, the inventory seeks to discover and document art assets that meet the civic art accession criteria.

It is an often-repeated phrase that cultural assets like artworks increase in value over time, unlike other tangible assets such as cars that depreciate as soon as they are driven off the lot. Civic artworks add aesthetic and intrinsic value to the sites in which they are located. Additionally, cultural assets have financial value, as the role of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection demonstrated in the city’s 2014 declaration of bankruptcy.

While the scope of this baseline inventory does not include appraisal, the potential financial value of these civic art assets plays a factor in the timeliness of this survey. During the course of designing and implementing the inventory process, it was discovered that other government agencies were also executing their own extensive inventories of cultural assets for similar reasons. The federal government is currently conducting a national survey to catalog and in some cases recover Works Progress Administration artworks, while the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk is preparing for an inventory of historical materials.

In 2004, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted its first Civic Art Policy, which mandated the Arts Commission oversee the documentation, maintenance, and conservation of County-owned artworks in conjunction with tenant County departments. The policy requires the Arts Commission to update and maintain a County civic art inventory that is made accessible to County staff as well as the public through a report every five years. The first, a preliminary inventory, was completed in 2009.

The 2009 inventory was executed with limited resources that focused on permanently sited works such as sculptures and murals. Arts Commission staff found sixty-eight artworks that met the civic art accession criteria during this effort. The methodology consisted of calling departmental colleagues to survey their respective buildings and identify artworks that may meet the civic art accession criteria. This exploratory work laid the foundation to create an interdepartmental artwork maintenance task force for the care of civic artworks at tenant department sites and indicated the need for a more comprehensive effort.

After the preliminary inventory report was published, the Arts Commission started to plan for a more extensive survey to establish a baseline inventory of all civic art assets in Los Angeles County. The current comprehensive baseline inventory commenced in 2014 and is part of a larger effort by Los Angeles County to adopt a preventative care (versus extraordinary measures) model of maintenance of County assets.

2. Infrastructure and conditions leading up to the inventory

Existing hardware such as iPads and styli procured by the Arts Commission specifically for fieldwork were applied toward the inventory process to provide technological support for taking documentary photos, accessing and transferring documents and forms, and data collection. Basic administrative software such as Microsoft Excel and Word are utilized to support everyday project tasks, but more specialized programs were required for data collection and storage in the field.

One such application was an upgraded collections management database (Gallery System’s EmbARK), which was acquired in preparation for the baseline inventory. This provided infrastructure for updated condition reports on artworks already accessioned in the County’s civic art collection and is the repository for newly accessioned artworks. However, it did not provide a basic template for gathering data during the inventory process.

Staff support came in two forms. Following the 2009 inventory, an interdepartmental artwork maintenance task force composed of County colleagues was determined to be the best starting point for generating appropriate departmental contacts for their respective departments. Participation was and still is voluntary and does not cover all thirty-six County departments whose sites would need to be surveyed. In order to coordinate and facilitate site visits, the Arts Commission needed associates in all County departments that owned, managed, or leased County properties and assets. Therefore, contacts in the task force were leveraged to reach all County departments to coordinate site visits and follow-up research.

Internal to the Arts Commission, the civic art staff dedicated to collections was composed of a collections manager and a registrar. Both positions were engaged in full-time collections-related work of which the inventory is a part, but neither would be able to manage, schedule, visit, and follow up to the capacity indicated. Temporary inventory-specific staff were contracted to facilitate the inventory process in the time allotted.

Finally, policy-wise, the Civic Art Policy established the foundation and framework for the civic art accession criteria to accept or decline artworks for the County civic art collection. The civic art accession criteria remains a living document that evolves in response to inventory findings from the field. Concurrent with the civic art baseline inventory, the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk department is developing an archive of historical materials related to Los Angeles County. The Arts Commission is working with Registrar-Recorder colleagues to identify and locate items found during the site visits that are outside the scope of the civic art collection but meet the archival criteria.

3. Needs and challenges

The 2009 inventory demonstrated the need to further refine the survey methodology to include more County sites. The preliminary inventory required departmental colleagues to initially survey County properties and inform the Arts Commission collections manager of the presence of potential artworks. Based on these reports, the collections manager visited sites to assess whether the object identified met the accession criteria. This strategy was not exhaustive in scope (a small subset of total County properties were visited) and required non-arts professionals to identify objects that may be civic artworks. While these colleagues were helpful because they had more familiarity with their buildings, this approach did not address blind spots that were the direct result of their familiarity. For example, throughout this current baseline inventory process, facility escorts have replied there are no potential civic artworks in their buildings, only to discover the mural or sculpture they see every day is a civic artwork.

For the current inventory, one challenge included finding, but not overburdening, the most appropriate departmental contacts to coordinate site visits and follow up provenance research. Departmental contacts were consulted with and informed at every major milestone in the process. Those departments with restricted or closed-access sites were additionally briefed through memos to senior level staff that apprised them of the policy mandating the inventory and departmental assistance in mapping Los Angeles County civic art assets.

Due to the size and complexity of the project, the Arts Commission hired two temporary consultants to serve as the field registrar and conservator. The field registrar conducts site visits and gathers data about artworks that may meet the civic art accession criteria. The conservator reviews the documentation of artwork conditions to develop maintenance guidelines and identifies artworks requiring varying degrees of conservation.

The collections team determined that data collection tools and infrastructure required an overhaul. The recently upgraded collections management database did not predicate the use of a controlled vocabulary to describe aspects of civic artworks like medium, support, object type, environmental conditions, and types of damage. Staff worked with the conservator to develop standardized terms for artwork and site conditions of civic artworks that would aid collections staff in determining eligibility for the County collection and the conservator in making maintenance guidelines.

4. Strategy and implementation

The mission of this baseline inventory process is to conduct an accurate and efficient survey of County-owned, -leased, and -managed sites for artworks that meet the civic art accession criteria. The first step was to develop, prioritize, and validate a list of County sites to survey. The real estate division of the Chief Executive Office compiled lists of owned and leased properties from the most recent accounting in 2014. After normalizing the data and combining identical addresses (the listings included individual buildings within a single site), the site list numbered 2,800 properties. This was beyond the capacity of the two years allotted for site visits.

The next step was to prioritize the site list to properties most likely to have civic artworks based on building use. Priority rankings were arranged in four groups:

  • Priority 1 sites: most likely or known to have art (e.g., libraries)
  • Priority 2 sites: may contain art due to their public-facing nature (e.g., service centers)
  • Priority 3 sites: not likely to have art because of restricted use and access (e.g., sewage processing plants)
  • Out-of-Scope sites: not included in the inventory search because they are not within County purview (e.g., courthouses that have transferred deed to the state)

Based on this categorization, Priority 1 and 2 were selected, which brought the list down to approximately 900 sites across Los Angeles County. Each County department contact was given a list of department sites to verify addresses and whether they were still in service and open. An ArcGIS map was created of these 900+ sites to identify clusters to help strategize and plan site visits that would minimize time in transit, facilitate adequate time spent at each site, and reduce the number of repeat visits. Arts Commission staff conducted a test run of Priority 1 and 2 sites to refine data-collection methods in the field.

Additional metrics outside of strict project management needs are collected to capture the social and physical aspects of the inventory process. The field registrar wears a pedometer to count the number of steps taken throughout the County and collects the business cards of employees interfaced with who were previously unaware of the Arts Commission.

5. Tools


  • Computers
  • Field registrar kit, which includes a tape measure, magnet, binoculars, gloves
  • iPads


  • ArcGIS: mapping platform used to generate maps and analyze itineraries
  • Dropbox: file-hosting service used to transfer files between the field registrar, conservator, and collections staff
  • Gallery Systems EmbARK: collections management database used as a repository for accessioned artwork data and to generate condition reports for County collection artworks
  • Microsoft Access: database used to manage provenance research phase of inventory process
  • PDF Expert: iPad application used to edit condition report PDFs
  • SurveyMonkey: data-collection survey form for cataloging potential civic artworks in the field


  • Collections manager: provides oversight throughout workflow, reviews field registrar deliverables, determines which artworks meet the civic art accession criteria, reviews conservator recommendations, assembles interdepartmental artwork maintenance task force
  • Conservator: reviews inventory findings, flags artworks for immediate intervention or future maintenance, develops maintenance guidelines, conducts conservation assessments and maintenance workshops for tenant departments that have civic artworks
  • Field registrar: conducts site visits, catalogs artworks that meet the civic art accession criteria, photographs artworks, logs conditions pertinent to project management, updates condition reports, revises and edits survey data and photographs for accuracy
  • Registrar: organizes all documentation related to inventory process, coordinates site visits, reviews and normalizes data for ingest into databases, distributes provenance surveys, prepares materials for collections manager and conservator review

6. Workflow

Currently, site visits are scheduled a month in advance and confirmed two weeks before the appointed day and time. Once a grouping of sites is selected for a week’s itinerary based on number of sites, square footage, whether the sites already have civic artworks, and weather and traffic conditions, the tenant department representatives are contacted for the most appropriate staff member to coordinate and facilitate a site visit, including designating a facility escort. Staff on site are alerted in advance to the site visit (more pertinent for high-profile or sensitive sites), and a mutually agreeable time and date for the site visit are confirmed.

On the day of the site visit, the field registrar meets with the facility escort and begins the visual inspection walkthrough to identify potential artworks that meet the civic art accession criteria and to update condition reports for artworks already accessioned in the County collection. Together they walk the site, which may include closed or restricted access areas. The field registrar catalogs basic aspects of artworks that meet the civic art accession criteria, such as dimensions, medium, support, object type, and marks. Each potential civic artwork is assigned a temporary inventory number that is used in labeling images and data associated with the artwork. Condition reports for County-collection civic artworks are generated from the collections management database and updated on the iPad using PDF Expert to edit and annotate with photographs and text.

After the site visit, the collections manager and registrar review and determine which artworks meet the accession criteria and follow up with departmental representatives to research the provenance of the works. Based on the findings from the provenance research phase, artworks are rejected for not meeting one or more accession criterion, deferred until further provenance information is presented, or accessioned into the County civic art collection.

Data collection begins with the preparation of the SurveyMonkey form prepopulated with that week’s itinerary of sites. A separate itinerary document is shared on Dropbox with departmental contact information, parking instructions, and additional information such as notes about recent conservation efforts. Older and blank condition reports are made available for artworks already accessioned in the County collection.

The field registrar uses the SurveyMonkey form to catalog basic details about artworks discovered during the surveys of County sites. Documentary photographs and notes from staff on site are recorded and shared with collections staff. Updated condition reports are scraped for data and ingested into the collections management database. The data are cleaned on a weekly basis and submitted on a monthly basis to the conservator for recommendations on maintenance and to identify artworks that require immediate conservator review.

Artworks that require further research before being accessioned are flagged for provenance follow up. Questionnaires on those works are sent to the appropriate departmental contact with a set of instructions on what qualifies as acceptable provenance documentation. Provenance data are uploaded separately into an Access database for project tracking, and regular updates are sent to County departmental colleagues informing them of civic artworks in their departments that have been accessioned and outstanding requests for further information. Accessioned artworks are uploaded into the collections management database.

7. Findings to date

As of January 31, 2016, the inventory has cataloged 939 artworks that may meet our accession criteria, exceeding expectations based on the 68 artworks discovered during the 2009 inventory. Of the 939 artworks cataloged, 776 are likely to meet the accession criteria and require further research to verify their eligibility in the County civic art collection.

One immediate outcome from early inventory findings was the recovery of three paintings that had been missing for over twenty years due to inadequate loan paperwork from the issuing museum. Through the inventory, the County was able to resolve this matter.

Another unexpected result was the increased visibility of the Arts Commission as a whole within the structure of County government. The field registrar collected 224 business cards from County employees who learned of the Arts Commission as the direct result of the inventory process. Anecdotally, there has been an increase in service-related phone calls to collections staff, which is attributed to the raising of awareness of a relatively small commission within the large ecosystem of Los Angeles County government.

Since recording the number of steps taken within the County, the field registrar has walked over 419 miles in the course of the inventory. An early site visit to the Hall of Records resulted in over 16 miles walked or 32,000 steps taken in an eight-and-a-half hour period.

8. Next steps

The baseline inventory process is currently in its first year of site visits, and provenance research is at an early phase. The priority of provenance research will ramp up in the next phase of the inventory process. A 40 percent provenance questionnaire response rate from County departmental staff is forecasted within the first year. The interdepartmental artwork maintenance task force reconvened in November 2015 to emphasize the importance of responses to the inventory process.

Once the ownership of the newly discovered civic artworks is established, Arts Commission staff will begin the process of accessioning these works into the County collection. The conservator will develop and update standardized maintenance guidelines for artworks. The Arts Commission will develop an artwork maintenance matrix for County departments with civic artworks that will include immediate next steps, such as security hanging and labeling, and provide guidance on finding funding for maintenance and conservation, if needed.

9. Conclusion

The commissioning of new artworks generates excitement. However, historically there are fewer resources dedicated to the long-term care and maintenance required to enjoy the artwork past its debut. For example, the San Francisco Arts Commission was publicly censured in 2012 for not knowing the whereabouts of its 4,000-piece collection. In its defense, the SF Arts Commission did not have the staff capacity then to manage such a large collection, which is the reality for most public art agencies in the United States. Regrettably, care and maintenance are often afterthoughts to building impressive public art collections, which is why the Los Angeles County Arts Commission is treating the inventory as an ongoing effort throughout the life cycle of the artworks.

Cite as:
Lee, Yvonne and Clare Haggarty. "Mapping civic art assets in Los Angeles County." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 30, 2016. Consulted .